Increasing food security through strategies and investments to increase incomes of small commercial farmers


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On both a pilot and large-scale basis, Bangladesh has pioneered much of the safety-net approach to food security and has led in planning and developing much of the basis for longterm solutions to food security problems. I was in Professor Nurul Islam’s home for the fateful speech that, in certain respects, marked the inception of the nation, and I have continued to learn from Bangladesh through my friends and many visits over the last four decades. During that time span, the food security of Bangladeshis has increased immensely, but there is more to be done, obviously, and, fortunately, a way to do it.

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Increasing food security through strategies and investments to increase incomes of small commercial farmers

  1. 1. Increasing Food Security through Strategies and Investment to Increase Incomes of Small Commercial Farmers John W. Mellor Bangladesh Food Security Investment Forum, 26–27 May 2010, Dhaka
  2. 2. INCREASING FOOD SECURITY THROUGH STRATEGIES AND INVESTMENT TO INCREASE INCOMES OF SMALL COMMERCIAL FARMERS John W. Mellor President, John Mellor Associates, Inc., and Former Director, International Food Policy Research Institute
  3. 3. Increasing Food Security through Strategies and Investment to Increase Incomes of John W. Mellor Small Commercial Farmers May 14, 20101 INTRODUCTION On both a pilot and large-scale basis, Bangladesh has pioneered much of the safety-net approach to food security and has led in planning and developing much of the basis for long- term solutions to food security problems. I was in Professor Nurul Islam’s home for the fateful speech that, in certain respects, marked the inception of the nation, and I have continued to learn from Bangladesh through my friends and many visits over the last four decades. During that time span, the food security of Bangladeshis has increased immensely, but there is more to be done, obviously, and, fortunately, a way to do it. SMALL COMMERCIAL FARMERS Small commercial farmers are the farm families that comprise roughly 40 percent of rural people and produce 80 percent of agricultural output. These farmers are, in a sense, full-time farmers. They respond best to opportunities of increased resource productivity and spend much of their income buying the nontradable goods and services produced by the poor and food insecure. This category of small commercial farmer does not include those with holdings so small that they produce less than half of their subsistence needs. The latter tend to be poor, food insecure, and reliant on the provision of rural nonfarm, nontradable goods and services for a living. They are termed the “rural nonfarm population.” These families are also large in number, comprising perhaps an additional 40 percent of the rural population. However, it is the small commercial farmers—not the rural nonfarm families—who hold the key to long-term elimination of food insecurity. Accelerating growth in their productivity and incomes is the means to a more prosperous nation, with broad participation in that prosperity, which would require safety nets for only a small percent of the population. 1 This paper is based on a presentation given by the author to the Bangladesh Food Security Investment Forum 2010 held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on May 26 −27, 2010. The presentation, introducing the technical session “Agricultural Growth, Productivity, and Climate Change,” was sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The Institute does not take responsibility for the views expressed here. Dr. John W. Mellor is president of John Mellor Associates, Inc., and former director of the International Food Policy Research Institute. 1
  4. 4. How do small commercial farmers relate to overall food security? Providing for the food insecure through safety nets is, of course, unsustainable when the food insecure comprise a large proportion of the population in developing countries. Inexorable population growth combined with limited land area and stagnant technology keeps increasing the requirements of safety-net programs. As a result, intervals between weather-driven crises shrink and total costs of providing safety nets expand beyond the willingness of external suppliers to finance them. In a low-income country, the food insecure live primarily in rural areas and earn income largely from employment in the rural nonfarm sector. They may have a small plot of land, which is typically insufficient to ensure food security. Thus, they earn the bulk of their income producing nontradables, or goods and services that are only salable locally. These services range from unskilled labor to artisanal jobs such as construction and repairs, furniture manufacture, tailoring, and retail work. Nontradable goods and services have transport costs or quality standards that prohibit them from being sold in large urban centers or export markets. The food insecure also includes persons who are substantially underemployed but who become employed when the demand for rural nonfarm goods and services increases. The purchasing power of the rural nonfarm sector is locally driven by the rising incomes of small commercial farmers, who typically spend half of any income increases on local nontradables produced by this sector. (The other half of additional income is divided equally among higher quality foods and urban-produced goods.) Therefore, it is the rising income of small commercial farmers that is responsible for 80 to 90 percent of rural poverty reduction and any subsequent reduction in food insecurity. Since it is raising real per capita incomes that drives the process, agricultural production and related incomes must grow significantly faster than population growth. This means that an agricultural growth rate of 4 percent or greater can be expected to eliminate the bulk of poverty and food insecurity in Bangladesh within 10 to 15 years. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO RAISE INCOMES OF SMALL COMMERCIAL FARMER? Rapid growth of agriculture that is dominated by small commercial farmers requires a set of public services. Of course, agricultural production is a private-sector activity, as are the bulk of input supply and marketing services. It is critical, however, that a set of functions are provided by the public sector—at least in low- and middle-income countries and, generally, in high- income countries as well. Why is this the case? Because in areas with limited land, any production (and related income) increases are due to a steady stream of research-based, yield- increasing innovations, which are made possible with the assistance of public services. Supporting the rapid growth of critical public institutions is sometimes mistaken as ignoring the role of the private sector. This is not the case, however. The sector of agriculture is dominated 2
  5. 5. by the private sector throughout, but the public sector should continue to complement private- sector activities. The current demands on the public sector are overwhelming relative to the sector’s limited capacities, so a clear strategy with tight priorities is needed to dictate what the public sector undertakes and how it gradually diminishes its role. Reviews to this effect exist and set a small number of critical public-sector priorities. In Bangladesh, five sets of public (or, government) services are required for growth in agricultural production and the incomes of the small commercial farmer. 1. Higher education to train technical persons in agriculture The essentials for achieving food security include a dynamic, rapidly growing system of well- staffed agricultural universities. The amount of public institutions required demands large numbers of highly trained staff (namely, university graduates). Complementary private-sector activities also require well-trained people. Although improving education—and educators—does not appear to be “action” toward achieving food security, it is, in fact, the foundation to any such success—just as education is the fundamental building block of any profession. Based on the gross neglect within the agricultural education system in recent decades, we are left with short-term palliatives to deal with food security emergencies. This need for education and training was fully recognized, albeit in a somewhat different context, in the early days of foreign aid. Major attention was given to developing agricultural universities through financial investment and technical assistance. While the core of that effort remains, expansion and dynamic adaptation to change have long been absent. What is needed is a renewal of those old efforts, suitably updated to reflect modern demands. To be successful, this must involve intensive technical assistance, investment in physical structures, and foreign training and experience. 2. Agricultural research and dissemination Agricultural growth is a product of both yield-increasing technological change and a shift to higher-value crop and livestock systems. As crops and livestock are continuously assaulted by shifting disease and insect attacks, substantial research results are needed to simply maintain existing production levels. Dynamic growth of those levels, on the other hand, requires much more. All studies of agricultural research show rates of return in the 40 to 60 percent range; it appears then that all countries are underinvesting in agricultural research. Modern research often results in technical products, which can be applied on farms of intelligent but often illiterate farmers only when accompanied by technically competent extension services that are able to provide adequate support. The world over, this type of competence within extension services arises from close integration of research and extension activities. But, somehow, in most low-income countries, research and extension have become disconnected, costing research its practical orientation and extension its up-to-date technical competence. Substantial reform and expansion of extension systems are therefore essential. 3
  6. 6. 3. Specialized agricultural credit institutions Rapid growth in small commercial farms results in rapidly increasing marketing, through substitution of the elastic supply of purchased inputs for the inelastic supply of on-farm inputs (such as soil nutrients, labor, and pest control). The private sector generally does well providing these supplies. However, the farm requirement for credit to finance increased inputs and marketing continues to grow exponentially. Universally, governments play a major role in establishing agricultural financial institutions because they are very different from credit agencies in other sectors due to the small scale, dispersed nature, and complex biological basis of farming. As a result, rapid growth within agriculture ultimately demands specialized agricultural finance systems. Commercial banks—especially where banking is dominated by a few large institutions—and microcredit rarely serve the small commercial farmer until the trail is blazed by such specialized institutions. These finance institutions do not typically have diversified portfolios beyond agriculture, which is not normally a problem since the sector of agriculture itself contains considerable diversity. When the entire sector is hit by a general downturn, however, this lack of diversity means governments must come to the rescue—although never at the level of cost seen in recent government rescues of nonagricultural financial systems. National agricultural credit systems often have a large membership of influential farmers, which tempts governments to use them as mechanisms to distribute politically favored positions by patronage. The capacity of credit systems to create large-scale employment is also politically desirable. Thus, it is a complex task to ensure rapid national coverage of a credit system without destructive interference. Most countries either begin in a manner that protects the system from these negative influences or evolve in that direction. The knowledge base of how that occurs is now immense, and the rich experience of the past several decades provides the foundation for creating and reforming such an agricultural credit system. 4. Farmers’ organizations Organizing farmers into cooperatives has been an important means of meeting frequent market failures in the complex, dispersed agricultural sector. A variety of external forces have pushed this institutional structure up the priority list, including rapid growth of credit needs; increased opportunity for trade due to globalization; greater incomes due to the production and marketing of high-value commodities; and supermarket pressures for large-scale, high-quality purchases. Small commercial farmers can produce enough to stay competitive at the farm level but cannot meet these other rapidly growing needs without banding together in cooperatives and similar organizations. Government has an important role to play in ensuring rapid national coverage of primary cooperatives and facilitating the construction of apex organizations that can train farmers, conduct quality-control measures, and provide scale economies in services. As for credit institutions, the temptation is great for political parties and government systems to co- 4
  7. 7. opt such organizations and, in the process, divert them from efficient provision of business services. Safeguards need to be created to avoid this. 5. Analysis and regulation of water resources Control of water is vital to agricultural success—particularly in a country with as many wetlands, rivers, and coastal regions as Bangladesh—and impending climate change undoubtedly increases that importance. Expansion of groundwater development is likely nearing an end, and, in turn, greater emphasis has recently been placed on surface water. Undoubtedly large-scale research is needed to provide innovative approaches to this difficult issue. There is an urgent and abundant need to develop water and other vital resources, so commissioning comprehensive reviews of global experience with water control will benefit Bangladesh. WHAT ARE THE PRIORITIES FOR FOREIGN ASSISTANCE TO ACHIEVING FOOD SECURITY? Given the role of accelerated growth in small commercial farmers’ production and incomes and the priorities for public action, what is the role of foreign aid? The answer to that question derives from the priorities stated above leavened with the comparative advantage of foreign institutions in these processes. The following five focal points for foreign assistance are aimed at ensuring long-term sustainable food security, but it is also important to prevent short-term relief-oriented palliatives from diverting attention away from these long-term processes. 1. Recognize that the key to food security is raising incomes of small commercial farmers Focusing on small commercial famers is an important departure from the current focus: the poorest of the poor—or, the very small farmers and the least-productive areas. The current thinking is driven by the goal of direct alleviation of poverty. But the indirect route of raising incomes of small commercial farmers is critical; it targets farmers who will respond to modern yield-increasing technology in areas that are similarly receptive to these changes. The alternative is to dismiss these indirect methods and instead implement direct action programs to raise the incomes of the food insecure; in fact, this is often what happens. But given that income-earning opportunities for the food insecure rely—and will long continue to rely—largely on producing nontradables, there really is no alternative to the indirect process just described. These are the processes and relationships that explain the widely documented finding that it is agricultural growth that brings rapid growth in employment and rapid decline in poverty and food security. Perhaps the most insidious concept about food insecurity is that it is an income problem, not a food (or agricultural) production problem. This line of thinking leads to direct action programs. Of course, food insecurity is an income problem. Food-insecure people do not have sufficient 5
  8. 8. income to purchase adequate quantities of food, and, in general, they cannot produce the food they require because they do not have enough (or, sometimes, any) land. But the solution to their income problem is derived indirectly, by increasing the incomes of small commercial farmers through increased food or agricultural production. Once income-driven demand for the goods and services produced by the food insecure grows, microcredit and other direct intervention programs aimed at increasing their productivity can have a useful impact. 2. Provide major sustained technical assistance to agricultural universities and research systems, and upgrade extension services A shortage of trained people results in a shortage of impact. Thus, providing for a rapidly and dynamically growing pool of trained personnel drives all potential for success. Of course high- income countries have a comparative advantage in providing technical assistance at all levels, including expatriates who teach on the job, making this is a vital area for foreign aid. Education and training methods must be dynamic and adjust to current realities with an ever-evolving knowledge base. The driving engine of agricultural growth is the effective dissemination of improved technology. This requires a research system that is constantly expanding and scientifically up to date as well as a technically integrated extension system. The donor community has immense expertise (and, again, comparative advantage) in providing technical assistance and capital equipment for these purposes. If the technical assistance “teaches by doing,” results will come quickly. Such support should also demonstrate how to (1) make research practical, (2) integrate extension, and (3) upgrade the technical capacity of otherwise low-level personnel. 3. Support further development of specialized agricultural credit agencies Over the past 20 years, a tremendous amount has been learned about the pros and cons of agricultural finance. The wealth of experience in low- and middle-income countries, unfortunately, has been in suboptimal approaches to agricultural finance. That knowledge is documented, and those lessons spelled out. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the excellent models of agricultural finance that exist in high-income countries were initially created at a stage in each country’s development not all that different from the current situations seen in present-day low- and middle-income countries. There is a need to share these exemplary credit models and learn from their stages of progression. Donors have an operational advantage in drawing on that vast experience to assist in adapting current knowledge to the specifics of each system. Of course, Bangladesh has a wealth of knowledge on microcredit and is now adapting that knowledge to create specialized institutions that will assist the small commercial farmer. In the process, Bangladesh can provide effective technical assistance to other countries, and foreign aid can provide capital that can then be leveraged to provide large lending pools. 4. Assist with the development of cooperatives Cooperatives have developed a bad name because in so many situations they have become perverted for political and bureaucratic purposes. To remedy this, foreign aid can draw lessons 6
  9. 9. from international experience (both good and bad) and successful cooperative movements in high-income countries in order to provide technical assistance in the rapid generation of primary cooperatives and—more importantly—the apex bodies so essential to good practices and useful evolution. 5. Conduct in-depth analyses of irrigation needs and potential Bangladesh already has a vast amount of knowledge about managing surface water systems, and this knowledge can be readily augmented by international experiences, including those of developed countries. Given the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change in the near future, a high-level commission of global water-management experiences aligned with the situation in Bangladesh has great potential. This is a natural focal point for a large foreign assistance effort. CONCLUSION Sustainable reduction in food insecurity requires the indirect process of rapidly increasing the incomes of small commercial farmers. These farmers dominate agricultural production, and it is the expenditure of their rising incomes that provides the basis for employment and income growth for the food insecure. Thus, the solution to food insecurity involves defining the priority actions and processes needed to efficiently increase the income of small commercial farmers, who spend half of their incremental incomes on the goods and services provided by the rural nonfarm sector. Safety nets can then concentrate on the small number of families that fall outside the areas affected by such processes, and, in a relatively short period of time, the bulk of food insecurity can be eliminated. 7
  10. 10. Cover graphics adapted from photography by © 2010 Hand Crank Films/IFPRI, © 2009 Pradeep Kumar Saxena/iStockphoto, and © 2006 G.M.B Akash/Panos.